Watchmen, the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is about to enter an exclusive club—stories that were turned into movies even though they were generally considered to be unfilmable.
I’m actually cautiously optimistic that Watchmen is going to be a good movie, but the transition isn’t going to be easy. Like Dune and Lord Of the Rings before it, Watchmen takes place on a different world. Yes, it’s Earth, but it’s a parallel Earth that has been radically altered by the presence of costumed vigilantes.
In the original, Moore and Gibbons use two basic techniques to tackle their world-building: excerpts from fictional documents, and putting strange items in a scene, often without drawing a lot of attention to them.
Neither technique, unfortunately, adapts well to movies, particularly at a time when directors are under constant pressure to Keep It Moving. With a book, or a comic, you always have the option to spend extra time on a scene, rereading some dialogue or looking at the poster in the background. That’s a lot harder to do when you’re watching a movie in a theater.
At the same time, if you take away too much of the background, you might take away some of the things that make the story unique. Or, worse yet, you may render the story incomprehensible to someone that hasn’t read the original—which I think is the biggest obstacle that any Watchmen movie is going to face.
For example…I once read a bootleg copy of a proposed Watchmen script, credited to Sam Hamm (who is probably best known for writing the script for Tim Burton’s Batman). Actually, I read about a third of it. I stopped at that point because the writer was still working on an action sequence which explained why super heroes being outlawed in this world. It’s easy to understand why a screenwriter would want to start a film with a strong action set piece, but the script hadn’t started to tell the original story yet.
I’m also reminded of how, during the original release of David Lynch’s Dune in 1984, theater owners were giving out pre-printed sheets—prepared by the studio, I suppose—listing the unusual terms that the viewer was about to encounter.
I don’t whether the approach Director Zack Snyder and the Watchmen crew is taking solves this problem. But they certainly are taking advantage of the options available to them. Short films explaining the setting are popping up on the Web. They seem to be available at different places, but , for some one-stop viewing, I suggest going to www.thenewfrontiersman.net. Short videos, fake documents and stills are available here. So far, my favorite videos are the ones explaining how Doctor Manhattan (the most powerful super hero on this Earth) won the war in Vietnam, and a school-scare style film about the Keene Act, the law that made costumed vigilantes illegal. Yes, I know this sort of thing is only going to increase the cost of making genre movies, but they’re still a lot of fun and may even be useful under certain circumstances.
There’s also a link at the New Frontiersman to an intentionally primitive-looking video game that was supposedly created in the 1970s in this film. It’s not my cuppa, but it may be yours. Just click on the quarter.
Another good place for background material that I’ve found is Watchmen: The Film Companion by Peter Aperlo. This book, which is now on sale, features profiles of nearly everyone in the cast, including Richard M. Nixon, who serving his fifth term as president when the story begins.
In addition, “Companion” gives you a chance to take a closer look at things that I suspect are going to pass in a few frames in the movie. My favorites include: Doctor Manhattan, reflected in the visor of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit as Armstrong steps onto the moon; what appear to be Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, at the unveiling of a Warhol-type painting of super hero called Nite Owl and a cover from Tales of the Black Freighter, the most popular comic book in this world. What do comic book publishers do when you see super heroes on the daily news? Apparently they move into pirate stories.
Speaking of the Black Freighter, there’s going to be animated version of Tales of the Black Freighter appearing on DVD about the same time as Watchmen arrives in the theaters. I’m not sure that any attempt to tell the full story of the Black Freighter is going to end well, but I have to admire their attention to detail.
With all this ancillary material, you may be assuming that a special edition Watchmen DVD is in the works. Well, you’re half right. There are two special editions in the works. The latest word is that the theatrical version of Watchmen will be two hours and 37 minutes long. The first DVD version release will be three hours and 10 minutes long, while the second one will clock in at three hours and 25 minutes.
Does all this mean that Watchman is going to be a good movie? I have no idea. But I think I’m going to have fun finding out.